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The Economist and its phallic “lump of ice”

As a school child, I often found myself embarrassed by the exoticized description of my faith.  With those days long behind me and being far more confident, as an adult, I often find myself forced to face descriptions in magazines and newspapers which would make the average American wonder, “What sort of weird religion is Hinduism?”

While school textbooks still leave much to be desired, instances of exoticization and eroticization by the media have become less frequent over the past decade.  I believe this is the result of the Hindu community and organizations, like the Hindu American Foundation (HAF), which have made concerted efforts to reach out and engage journalists and reporters.  But despite the efforts to improve the manner in which Hinduism is portrayed, there is clearly a long way to go.


On July 21, The Economist wrote a piece on Kashmir, the conflict-ridden region in India, and described the Amarnath cave, one of Hinduism’s most sacred shrines dedicated to Lord Shiva, as a “penis-shaped lump of ice.”  Countless online comments to the article clearly demonstrated the outrage and insult felt by Hindus across the board at the magazine’s crude and sensationalist description of that which is holy to one billion people worldwide.

Why would a such a well-respected magazine allow such a disparaging description to be published and then refuse to retract it?

In an effort to get an answer to this question, and also to request a retraction, the Hindu American Foundation reached out to the South Asia editor and suggested an alternate (and more respectful) description of “naturally formed ice stalagmite worshipped as a form of the Hindu God Shiva.”  To his credit, the editor did reply promptly to the inquiry.  Unfortunately, he pointed to his reference of wikipedia which defines the Shiva Lingam as “male creative energy or of the phallus.”  While there is no denying the existence of this definition, couldn’t he have continued reading to the next sentence which provides “[a] complementary theory [that] suggests that the Lingam represents the beginningless and endless Stambha pillar, symbolizing the infinite nature of Shiva?”


When given the choice between two theories, why was the former found more worthy of publication in such a well-established magazine?  And even after making the decision to use the phallic interpretation of the Lingam, why choose the needlessly provocative, crude, and anatomical description of “penis-shaped,” and that too with the qualification of “lump of ice?”

HAF made both of these arguments, among others, to The Economist, to no avail.  To that end, the Foundation launched a campaign on yesterday.  For every person who signs the petition, a pre-written letter is sent to The Economist with a request to replace the offensive description of Amarnath with respectful language.   As of the writing of this blog, almost 400 people have signed on.  Click here to see the campaign and sign on.


I sincerely hope that The Economist reconsiders its poor choice of words and replaces them with respectful terminology.  These types of descriptions, however small they may appear, are read by countless individuals, many of whom do not have much knowledge about Hinduism.  It presents a distorted image of a truly beautiful faith replete with thousands of years of philosophical thought.  For a magazine of such a high caliber, The Economist could do so much better.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment j narayan

    Thank you for the article. HAF and many shaivites may feel the language of “penis shaped” is disrespectfully menat, but perhaps they assume too much.
    to say that a (holy) lingam is not penis shaped would be incorrect, and yet, not every person especially nonhindus see he difference in the language of either phallic, or penis shaped. I dont know if whether people don’t know what the word phallic means or if the description of penis-shaped i simply easier to understand, however i am not certain that any blatant disrespect is made. Something clear here is true- whoever doesnt find the holy lingam to be holy, should be able to describe it in any way that they understand-as we presume that they dont find it holy. so penis shaped or no, it has no significance for non-hindus. i think HAF should put their efforts into education perhaps-because sensitivity to religious beliefs may not be a strong point for many people. sad but true.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Jiger Patel

    What concerns me more is, The Economist, using Wikipedia as a source to find accurate information! Wikipedia is a great source for High School students, and may be under-graduate college students, but for a magazine of high calibre like Economist it seems ridiculous.

  • Reform Uscirf

    Unacceptable Prejudice (*)

    I am an avid reader of The Economist. I read it mostly for its economic content but I also regularly read its banyan and other S. Asian columns. I can vouch that Economist almost always provides disparaging description of Hinduism and its followers. Most articles at The Economist smack of Anti –Hindu Prejudice and bias. More-over, I can’t recollect any article which describes Hinduism in respectful manner. At one point I even thought of doing a statistical analysis of magazines treatment to Hinduism vs. other religions.
    1) July 2011 article is not an exception but rule. Aug 2008 article “Bitter fruit”, about Amarnath pilgrim shelter controversy, states that “pilgrims see (Amarnath) as a phallic symbol of the god Shiva”. How many pilgrims did Economist ask before printing such false statement? More-over, article suppresses facts like past terror attack on pilgrims, need for safe shelter, and temporary nature of shelter.

    2) Dec 2010 article “Shaking the mountains” states that Amarnath pilgrims are unmolested; However, Nothing can be further from truth. Amarnath pilgrims were massacred on several occasions. For instance, On August 2nd 2000, 105 pilgrims were murdered by terrorist who attacked makeshift pilgrim tents.

    3) June 2011 article “The Swami’s Curse” indirectly describes ayurveda and yoga as quack cures. The article attacks Baba Ramdev and calls him Looney. I doubt if economist would use the same foul language towards a non-Hindu seer.

    4) Economist has printed tons of articles on Kashmir like Nov. 2010 “The K Word”. These articles almost always omits “The P Word” (i.e., indirectly deny cum downplay Kashmiri Pandit Plight). Only one article reluctantly mentioned “The P Word”.

    5)Economist has printed many articles about Ayodhya dispute. Almost all articles omit/suppress entire history and deny archeological evidence. Example, Oct 2010 article “The uneasy split” falsely claims that “there is no archaeological evidence to support either belief”; However, Nothing can be further from truth. Archeological evidence of Hindu temple is a fact proven beyond reasonable doubt in India’s high court.

    6) March 2010 article “The rights approach”, which is about RTI Act, has nothing to do with Hinduism but nevertheless slips into Hindu bashing.

    (*)Unacceptable Prejudice is an Aug 14th 2008 article from whose message is “Don’t be beastly to the Poles”. Let’s ask Economist to practice what it preaches and send a message “Economist please stop being beastly to the Hindus”.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Chris U.

    With deep respect for all Hindus, I would like to mention, as I have been taught, the Hindu religion is the oldest religion and the beginning of all religions.

    I thank God for that !!!

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment KLUPADHYA

    Pen on paper wisdom of the author published by The Economist without understanding the implication. This article hurts the feelings of Hindus.

  • http://concertedeffortagainsthinduism yagya

    if you study the language of sanskrit, ling means a symbol and not penis as it has been propagated by insiders and outsiders of this ancient faith.
    quite often this type of wrong meanings were created for the sensual pleasure of some characterless persons and also by some persons for making easy conversion of hindus to other religions. passive attitude of hindus re. the correct information has not helped hinduism.
    our ancient religion has been connected with the nature and ice pillar of nature has been misinterpreted.
    otherwise also some organisations have been spending lot much funds for giving false informations not only against hinduism but against India itself.
    let us try to give the correct information by spreading Sanskrit language.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Paul

    The truth is shiva linga (the penis) is always surrounded by Yoni (the vagina) of Parvati. The combination of linga and yoni are ubiquitous throughout India. Shiva has one thousand wives and known for his great sexual powers. The problem is once Hindus come to the West, they get Christianized in their thinking and get embarassed when Shiva linga is called penis of Shiva. You can see naked sadhus in Calcutta with ashe on their foreheads. That is taken as religiosity in India but if we portray those sadhus here in the West, we would be called bigots. Hindus have been Christianized in their thinking. There is nothing wrong with Economist’s article.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Pranav

    I am a citizen of India, born and raised here in a hindu family. As a child, I have visited many shiva temples across various parts of western and southern India.

    Now, the facts:

    Most if not all shiva temples are built according to a particular design.

    1. When you enter a shiva temple, the place where the “shiv-ling” is located is known as the “garbha-griha”. Garbha = womb, Griha = place.

    2. As Paul mentioned in the previous comment, the “linga is always encircled by a “Yoni” Yoni = Vagina.

    Basically, every shiva temple is parvati’s womb – where you worship shiva’s – if I may use the word – penis – while it is penetrated through the yoni. The worship ritual includes “bathing” the lingha and yoni with milk multiple times during the day in order to keep them lubricated.
    The opinion:

    1. Shiva is a deity of fertility, The act of sex is a symbol of fertility and that is worshipped in shiva temples – There is nothing wrong with this, especially when you consider how ancient the religion is and how it has managed to remain unaffected by judeo-christian-islamic culture despite the various foreign invasions of india during the period after the introduction to the world of Christianity and Islam. The fact that certain hindus go into – what essentially represents – a goddess’s womb and help lubricate a god’s phallus as a form of worship is nothing to be ashamed of!

    2. Phallic worship is nothing new, it existed in all ancient religions and exists in modern religion in some from or the other.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment kay

    Rather than expect those people who sensationalize the news by trying to change them, we should embrace the fact that Hinduism is so advanced that it appreciates the vital role that the lingam plays in all of creation. It is this creative power that is symbolized in the lingam.
    Those who are unable to face this truth because they are uncomfortable with their bodies will find it “weird”.

  • economisteblog

    Hey I found this website to be really attention-grabbing! Bookmarked!

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